Why Everything You Know About Leadership Is Wrong

Leadership is cited again and again as being a key component of business success. But traditional notions of leadership are out of touch in today's economies.

The term leadership is perhaps too frequently seen as being interchangeable with the word management. However, leadership in the 21st century is about far more than providing directions and answers; it's about influencing a company in a way which will make it sustainable in the future.

Changing Face of Leadership

Writing for Fresh Business Thinking, Andrew Lester, managing partner of Carr-Michael Consulting, highlighted three reasons why traditional perceptions of leadership are now outdated.

Firstly, in the rapidly changing markets being seen post-recession simply having strong industry knowledge and expertise is not enough to guarantee success.

He said expectations surrounding leaders are changing, meaning those in these roles are being expected to "influence far more and direct far less than previously."

Thirdly, Lester said leadership covers a far greater range of responsibilities than it ever has before, "managing a larger number of diverse relationships across sectors as well as leading the business."

It is for this reason that Lester believes leadership is becoming less lonely. Leaders must take a much more "collaborative" view of their role, garnering expertise and insight from a wider range of colleagues. This once again changes the skills and expertise required for leaders.


Qualities for leadership

Born leader is a term often used to describe a particularly tenacious type of person, yet can a leader really be born? On the other hand, can someone be taught how to be a good leader if they don't have a natural talent?

For many, the answer is leaders can neither be born or made. Rather it is a combination of training, experience and natural abilities which makes a person capable of asserting the influence needed to drive an organisation forward.

Research carried out by the UK-based Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) found the most important characteristics for leaders were emotional intelligence and the ability to motivate.

"First and foremost, the senior HR professionals we approached emphasised a distinct set of personal characteristics that future leaders need to possess.

"These were principally in the relationship and inter-personal domain – they sought visionary, motivational and inspirational people who are emotionally intelligent, trustworthy, natural leaders and communicators, and who are also driven and ambitious," the report said.

What's more, experience of failure was said to be one of the key qualities looked for in a leader, to show they had experience of dealing with adversity.

"The strong message is the need for complete leadership – effective senior leaders or managers blend characteristics, skills, knowledge and experience in a balanced, all-round approach," the report said.

The research also suggested 84 percent of the 1,000 commercial HR professionals surveyed believed an MBA was not an effective way of developing the skills needed for strong leadership.

Culture of Leadership

However, this is not to say that companies placed no significance to training. Rather, they preferred in-house training which would allow leaders to have their skills and culture better aligned with that of the organisation.

This perhaps leads on well to one of the key qualities which any type of leader who wishes to be truly successful needs.

No matter how great the skills of the leader, unless they are accepted within an organisation they will not have the influence required to make the necessary leadership decisions.

This is perhaps particularly true as, much like Lester explained, leadership moves away from being a one-man band towards a more collaborative approach.

Management expert Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn professor of management studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps offered one of the best explanations of this in an article he wrote in the Financial Times a number of years ago now.

"True leadership is earned, internally – in the unit, or the organisation, or the community, even the nation, that not only accepts the guidance of some person, but sought it out in the first place, and has subsequently sustained it with enthusiasm," he wrote.